PM heads to Brussels but chances of Brexit breakthrough slim

Theresa May is heading to Brussels for her latest round of Brexit crisis talks demanding a guarantee that the UK must not be trapped in the Irish backstop.

But her chances of a breakthrough are not good, after EU chiefs Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk were both adamant there can be no re-negotiation on the withdrawal agreement.

The mood at the latest Brussels talks is also likely to have been soured by Mr Tusk’s “special place in hell” attack on UK Brexiteers, which prompted an angry response from senior Cabinet ministers.

The talks in the Belgian capital come ahead of further Commons votes on the PM’s Brexit deal which the government said would take place next week, on Wednesday if she is successful in Brussels and on Thursday if she is not.

The Daily Telegraph reports, however, that if Mrs May were to negotiate a new deal, she would delay a parliamentary vote on it until just a month before Brexit day, putting immense pressure on MPs to back it.

The paper claims several ministers are understood to have warned her against the delay, which they believe makes extending Article 50 – now being proposed by senior Labour figures – inevitable.

On the eve of the PM’s talks, opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn has written to her spelling out his price for Labour support in the votes, listing five demands including a customs union and alignment with the single market.

According to Downing Street, when she meets Mr Juncker and Mr Tusk, the PM will deliver 10 key messages, including:

© Getty Donald Tusk (L) and Jean-Claude Juncker say there can be no re-negotiation

:: The UK’s objective is to find a way to guarantee we cannot, and will not, be trapped in the backstop.

:: The prime minister is open to different ways to achieve this, but is clear it must be legally binding and therefore will require changes to the withdrawal agreement.

But the prime minister will admit, according to No 10, that securing such changes will not be easy, a message underlined by the uncompromising statements by Mr Juncker and Mr Tusk after discussions with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar.

In the talks, Mrs May will say the government is examining alternative arrangements to the backstop and considering legal changes that could provide the type of guarantees MPs of all parties have said they need.

© PA Jeremy Corbyn has written to the PM spelling out his price for Labour support

She will pledge that the government now wants urgently to work with the EU to secure such changes and claim the EU shares the UK’s commitment to leave with a deal.

And in a message aimed at her wavering MPs as well as Brussels, she will declare that they must show determination and do what it takes to now get the deal over the line.

After her talks in Brussels, Mrs May will travel to Dublin on Friday for dinner with Mr Varadkar, who also dismissed the prime minister’s proposals for alternative arrangements to the backstop.

Mr Corbyn’s five demands in return for Labour support are:

:: A permanent and comprehensive UK-wide customs union.

:: Close alignment with the single market.

:: Rights and protections for workers which keep pace with Europe.

:: Participation in EU agencies on the environment, education, and industrial regulation.

:: Security arrangements, including the European Arrest Warrant and shared databases.

In his letter, Mr Corbyn tells the PM: “We recognise that any negotiation with the EU will require flexibility and compromise.

“Our first priority must be a deal that is best for jobs, living standards, our communities, in the context of increased and more equitable investment across all regions and nations of the UK.

“The government’s failure to secure a deal that can command the support of parliament means time has run out for the necessary preparation and for legislation to be finalised.

“Following last week’s rejection by the House of Commons of ‘no deal’, all necessary steps must be taken to avoid such an outcome.”

Mr Corbyn ends his letter by pledging: “My colleagues and I look forward to discussing these proposals with you further, in the constructive manner in which they are intended, with the aim of securing a sensible agreement that can win the support of parliament and bring the country together.”

The backstop is a customs plan to avoid a “hard” border between Ireland and Northern Ireland if a free trade deal between the UK and EU is not reached.


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